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Irregular Jonathan Speaks: Forward the Panopticon

Whether it will stand fast, and bear the shocks of discussion, remains to be decided by experience...What would you say, if by the gradual adaptation and diversified application of this single principle, you should see a new scene of things spread itself over the face of civilized society?
- Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon (1791)

The Panopticon, rendered from Bentham's original specifications.

More than two centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham introduced his Panopticon to the world: two sets of concentric towers, one within the other, with cells lining the outer wall being visible to and subject to regulation from a watch tower at all times. Those who were subjects of the Panopticon would live, eat, sleep and work in these cells.

Originally designed as a prison, the all-seeing Panopticon was envisioned by Bentham as eventually "applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection..." (p.i vol I). Some particular applications that caught Bentham's fancy: factories, schools, hospitals, insane asylums and poor houses.

The Panopticon, while never actually built, provides a compelling example of a complete system of dependence and control. In the physical form of the Panopticon there is a separation between conception and execution, management and workers, controllers and controlled, power advantage and power disadvantage. The Panopticon completely destroys the private sphere of life; every action or activity of the individual becomes public knowledge, information usable by the institution. Those in the cells are totally dependent upon those in the watch tower for their survival, and due to that dependency the tower guards are able to maintain absolute control over their subjects.

The Panopticon is an extreme form, but Bentham and others after his time have seen the creation as a model for future social organization. Indeed, the all-seeing Panopticon is omni-present in 21st Century society.

In the world of work, the Panopticon is most openly expressed through deskilling, the separation of conception and execution. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, work settings ranging from auto assembly to clerical work to computer programming have endured deskilling. In older pre-industrial craft systems, workers in small firms were the source of knowledge and skill in their crafts; the transition to modern work systems was achieved through the study of craft and the distribution of aspects of the valuable skill of one worker into simple, unskilled bits of work carried out by a number of workers. Through this process, control over work was consolidated in the hands of management and taken away from workers. Workers could be more easily controlled -- because they had no skills to take to another job, they found it more difficult to leave a job they didn't enjoy (this process was inspired by Frederick Taylor's work with "scientific management"; see Richard Simpson's "Social Control of Occupations and Work" in the 1985 Annual Review of Sociology).

Outside of the arguably public world of work, the model of the Panopticon increasingly applies to areas of life previously considered sacredly private. Over the past two decades the family doctor has been replaced by the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO), a conglomerate of medical professionals who offer basic care. Many of these HMOs are affiliated with corporations. As Cindy Anne Stearns found in her work "Company Doctors," the previously sacred doctor-patient relationship in an HMO is very much affected by corporate priorities. If the priorities of a company is to keep workers working, doctors working for that company may have an incentive to return the worker to his or her workstation. In the meantime, corporations with affiliated HMOs may gain access to the medical records of their workers and use the information therein for their own purposes.

The rise of the Panopticon is most clearly evident in the case of computer communication technology. The most commonly cited privacy-buster is the "cookie:" a small program deposited on your computer that records your Internet browsing habits and reports them to a business you know nothing about. Corporations occupy the central tower in this cyber-Panopticon.

Governments are also moving to open up your private lives to public view. The Echelon system, controlled by five Western powers, is reportedly capable of scanning all available non-military communications in real time and recording for further review those communications which contain certain keywords. The FBI has developed a software package named Carnivore which allows the agency to scoop "packets" of your e-mails out of the flow of information from one terminal to another. These packets can be reconstructed into full messages and used against you. Interpersonal communication is no longer private, but is open to prying corporate and government eyes.

As the sphere of the private continues to contract, it is useful to consider the historical roots of that development. Bentham's Panopticon was not only a seminal invention, but also a powerful statement of the idea that the more an individual is observed, the more that control over the individual is taken away from from him- or her-self and concentrated in the hands of the observer. Before the model of the Panopticon progresses further, while individuals still have some measure of control over their own lives, it is imperative that we recognize the threat and make our private opposition public.